Taiwan: Why the US & China are on collision course for war | DW News
It's National Day in Taiwan. Outside the presidential palace in Taipei, this is more than a parade. It's a show of defiance – against an existential threat. China's military has just mounted its biggest show of force in a generation. A test run for a blockade or even invasion of Taiwan. A place China says is its own.
Taiwan's president says NO – and her people must be ready to fight. "We must defend our national sovereignty and our free and democratic way of life. On this point, we have no room for compromise.” A thousand miles away, in The Great Hall of the People in Beijing. Xi Jinping is making Chinese Communist Party history. With a third term at the top.
And making his promise – and his threat. That one way or the other, Beijing will take control of Taiwan. "We will strive for the prospect of a peaceful reunification with the greatest sincerity and greatest efforts, but will never commit to abandoning the use of force." His words echo across the Taiwan Strait The Chinese government is adamant that it wants to as it puts it "reunify" with Taiwan.
And yet a growing majority of people in Taiwan are equally adamant that they don't want that. Now that simple but profound tension looks to be reaching breaking point. The US is preparing for conflict in this strategically critical region… with Joe Biden saying America would come to Taiwan's defence. And that would mean a very big war.
"The escalation would almost be immediate. A general war involving at least three or four, four or five countries, including the three largest economies in the world.” In a time already shaken by conflict in Europe, this would plunge the world into a crisis of historic proportions. In this video we find out how we got into this dangerous situation. And how we might prevent it getting even worse. In part 1, we go back in time to uncover the roots of the crisis.
How a diplomatic breakthrough kept the peace for decades - but left a legacy of anger and betrayal. "Everybody, all three angles in this triangle are permeated with distrust. That is a consequence of the process we have used to get to where we are today.” In part 2, tensions begin to boil. "They fired missiles to the waters near Taiwan. They conducted very large-scale air and sea exercises.
They conducted cyber attacks against Taiwan. The Chinese seems to be preparing for a war against Taiwan” And in part three we project the dynamics in China, the US and Taiwan into the future. To see where this dispute is heading. And to find out what, if anything, can stop it breaking out into war. "I think the danger is greater today than it has ever been before. The US and China are in this spiral of threat and counter threat, and counter-counter threat, and Taiwan is caught in the middle.”
"We in mainland China believe that Taiwan is part of China and we have to reunify with Taiwan. The only question is through what means: whether they will be peaceful or whether we have to use force.” "I think the key thing is for Beijing to recognize that if you go to war to seize Taiwan, you lose.” But let's begin by stepping back in time for a moment. Because to really understand what's happening now, you have to dig into to ANOTHER time in history when the geopolitics of the world were shifting… And just one thing: If you know your history really well, go ahead and jump to part 2.
But I'd suggest you stick around for some pretty fascinating details that show how diplomacy can go right – and very wrong – at the same time. It's February 1972… and Air Force One touches down in Beijing on a trip that would change the world. US President Richard Nixon, breaking the ice of the Cold War to seek friendship with "Red China.” Before this visit they had NO relationship at all. Now that was to change. "To the hope of our children, that peace and harmony can be the legacy of our generation to theirs."
The trip was a huge gamble but Nixon and his national security advisor Henry Kissinger had good reason for it. It was all about the battle for dominance in a divided world – and exploiting tensions between China's leader Mao Zedong and the much bigger enemy: the USSR. "They were seeing that the - what they had long believed to be a kind of unbreakable bond of socialist brotherhood between the Soviet Union and China was actually not unbreakable and they wanted to help break it. "What impressed me is that this is a kind of grand chessboard movement. China, although at that time was a poor nation, was still a very important chip, at this step between the the two camps at loggerheads. So China is not as important as United States.
China was not as important as the United States, and China wasn't as important as Soviet Union. But if you put China on each side, then the balance would change. And Richard Nixon, of course, saw this, Kissinger saw this. And so they - they did something. But at the same time, the Chinese government also saw this opportunity. "Mao had never really trusted the Communist Party of the Soviet Union.
By the mid 1960s they were actually having military clashes on the border between China and Russia. So China needed to find someone to provide a little bit of counterweight to the Soviet Union.” So when Nixon and Mao finally met, both had a major prize to play for. But before the meeting could actually happen – they had to solve a massive problem. What to do about Taiwan. Decades earlier, the US had forged an alliance with Chiang Kai-shek – the leader of the losing side in China's civil war.
Chiang had fled the mainland for Taiwan in 1949… And he claimed he was China's legitimate leader - of what he called the "Republic of China.” The American alliance had been crucial for Taiwan ever since. But now, it was going to be sacrificed to build relations with Beijing.
This would be a diplomatic bombshell – and a political one too. Just think about it: an American president, dropping a longstanding CAPITALIST ally in order to make friends with a Communist enemy – in the middle of the Cold War! Nixon had to prepare the ground incredibly carefully - it had to work. Henry Kissinger, Nixon's trusted national security advisor, was the man for the mission - he took a secret trip to Beijing to find a solution. "What Kissinger needed was some kind of a formula for talking about Taiwan that would survive the scrutiny of American politicians, many of whom strongly believed that the US should not throw over an anti-communist ally in favor of creating a relationship with a communist country.” Kissinger's sparring partner was Zhou Enlai, prime minister and Chairman Mao's powerful number 2. We don't have footage from the first secret set of talks in July 1971 – but we do have the official US transcripts.
Taiwan was absolutely front and centre. Zhou set out his demands… expressing what was an article of faith for the People's Republic of China – the "One China Principle.” "In recognizing China the US must do so unreservedly. It must recognize the PRC as the sole legitimate government of China… Taiwan is a Chinese province… an inalienable part of Chinese territory.” "From their point of view, any territory that was part of the Qing dynasty at its height is part of China and should be in the People's Republic of China today. So the one China principle is: there is only one China.
Everything that was part of the Qing at its largest extent is part of that China and the capital of that China is Beijing. And the legal government of that China is the People's Republic of China. But over in Taiwan, Chiang Kai-shek ALSO claimed to be the rightful leader of "One China”.
A China not led by communists, but by nationalists. So Kissinger had to find a formula to satisfy Beijing without completely enraging both Taiwan and its American supporters. "So the fig leaf that they came up with was for the US side to say: look, we get it. We just recognize the claim held by both sides of the Taiwan strait that Taiwan is part of China and all we say, all we want is peace and stability.
Solve the problem however you choose between the two of you. But solve it peacefully.” This fig leaf meant that Kissinger was establishing a version of "One China” that was very different from Beijing's. At the same time, Kissinger gave Zhou Enlai a hint that the Chinese would get their way in the long run.
"One's prediction would have to be that the political evolution is likely to be in the direction which Prime Minister Zhou Enlai indicated to me.” But Kissinger's hint was not in tune with the political reality back home in the US. "So basically Kissinger told Zhou Enlai 'Don't worry about it, you'll get what you want,' knowing that other people in the United States government would see to it that it was not that easy.” Still, Beijing went along with it and Nixon's visit the following year produced the decisive steps towards establishing full relations…. which Jimmy Carter and Deng Xiaoping would
eventually formalise in 1979. This process left Taiwan looking very lonely on the world stage. It lost its seat at the United Nations.
And many other countries followed the US lead in switching recognition from Taipei to Beijing. Some had already done so. But that fig-leaf that Kissinger had produced to get Zhou's acceptance was also the beginning of a blurred, AMBIGUOUS US position towards Taiwan and China… with different parts of the US government pulling in different directions. "US officials had to go back to Washington and tell Congress, you know: we are going to recognize the People's Republic of China and we are going to end our mutual defense treaty with Taiwan - And entirely predictably, those American politicians, especially again in Congress, said: hell no, you're not abandoning Taiwan, we're not letting that happen.”
So Taiwan's supporters in Congress came up with a law to soften the blow: The Taiwan Relations Act. "So they wrote legislation that requires the US to treat Taiwan as if it were a country that we recognized, and to continue to offer Taiwan the capability to defend itself.” Now America's commitments in the Taiwan Relations Act are very carefully defined… They DON'T go as far as an alliance - that would clearly be a breach of the pledges to Beijing. Instead it walks a kind of blurry line that's become central to America's position on Taiwan ever since – known as 'strategic ambiguity.' "By saying to Taiwan: you know, you don't know for sure that we would support you if you provoked Beijing to attack you.
And by saying to Beijing: you don't know for sure that we won't go to war against you if you attack Taiwan without provocation. So both sides are uncertain what the US response to their own actions might be. That's strategic ambiguity.” Despite all those hedges, the Taiwan Relations Act's commitments went too far for Beijing – which saw it as contradicting the deal they had just agreed.
"Between 79 and 82 Beijing was complaining constantly about US arms sales to Taiwan, like 'we thought we were getting Taiwan back.'” By this time Ronald Reagan was in the White House… and he looked for new ways to keep all sides happy – with a new Communiqué to satisfy the Chinese leadership. "In response to Beijing's complaints about arms sales, the Reagan Administration said: look, as long as things stay peaceful, we can reduce the amount and the lethality of the arms we sell to Taiwan gradually over time.” Reagan tried to balance this out with a set of promises not to abandon Taiwan any further – called the "six assurances.”
"Then Reagan sent an official to Taipei to say: look, you know, this doesn't mean that we're giving up on you, this doesn't mean that we're going to negotiate with Beijing over the future of Taiwan. That's the six assurances.” This was quite a bit of diplomatic gymnastics by any standards. It did seem to settle things down for the time being.
But in the long run, it couldn't stop PROBLEMS with trust mounting up. "If they agree that Taiwan is a part of China, so why would they keep sending more and more arms to Taiwan? This kind of internal conflict or seemingly discrepancy is actually a purposeful collaboration between the Congress and the White House.” "Washington's rejoinder is: you guys are not acting peaceful. And while the Taiwanese were happy to receive the six assurances, they also have this permanent concern that you know - eventually the US is going to decide that protecting Taiwan is not worth it and they're going to wake up one morning and find that they're on their own.
So everybody, all three angles in this triangle are permeated with distrust. That is a consequence of the process we have used to get to where we are today.” And at the heart of all this: a profound mismatch in perceptions of what the US and China even agreed all those decades ago. Leaving unfinished business at the core of their relationship. And sure enough, all of these contradictions and senses of betrayal and distrust are now bursting out into the open – into a very different world. After nightfall in southern Taiwan.
The Taiwanese army is holding live-fire exercises. Testing its strength to resist an invasion by China. And determined to show that it's ready for the fight. "We will prepare for war but will not seek war.
We will fight but not seek conflicts.” But conflict may be coming. Chinese military pressure has reached new levels. Massive exercises in 2022 were seen as a partial test-run for a blockade, or even invasion. Taiwan's foreign minister, Joseph Wu, condemned the drills.
"They fired missiles to the waters near Taiwan. They conducted very large-scale air and sea exercises. They conducted cyber attacks against Taiwan.
They conducted disinformation campaign against Taiwan. So put it all together. This is what they want to do to Taiwan when they want to invade Taiwan.” The exercises broke with established practice, crossing the so-called "Median Line” midway between Taiwan and the mainland. "The median line of the Taiwan Strait has been there for decades, safeguarding peace and stability over the Taiwan Strait.
And without that tacit agreement, the two militaries are going to come very close to each other, and the Chinese are coming so close that it can press the depths of our air defense and it can create a very dangerous situation.” But the Chinese say they're just responding to AMERICAN provocations. August 2022 – Nancy Pelosi lands in Taipei for a visit that's set the world on edge. She's Speaker of the House of Representatives – the most senior American politician to set foot in Taiwan in a generation. She tells her host, President Tsai Ing-wen: she's come to support a democracy under threat.
"We will not abandon our commitment to Taiwan and we are proud of our enduring friendship…” Beijing responded with outrage, insisting the trip was a breach of US "One China” policy. "For days China has through various channels at multiple levels repeatedly expressed to the United States China's stern position of staunchly opposing Pelosi's Taiwan visit, but the US and those Taiwan separatist forces seem not to have heard.” And those massive military exercises started within hours of Pelosi's departure. The message: America made us do this.
"Honest answer is, if Nancy Pelosi didn't make the visit, we could not have the chance to have such a grand-scale exercise. So it is the United States that has provoked China and to make China respond. We just let the world know that we would not tolerate this kind of behavior and we - PLA - would stand ready to even use military actions.”
But the Taiwanese say the Pelosi visit really wasn't such a big deal. "If they can find Speaker Pelosi's visit with Taiwan as an excuse to launch such a large military scale exercise, I think they can find many more excuses. The Chinese military threat against Taiwan will not stop Taiwan from making more friends. And at the same time, it will not stop international friends to come to Taiwan and show their support to us.”
Sure enough, western lawmakers have been streaming to Taiwan, including two delegations from Germany soon after Pelosi's visit. One participant told us that the trips were fully in line with Germany's version of 'One China.' "It's no breach of the policy we have for many, many years. It would be a change if we would hesitate visiting Taiwan in these times. And that's that would be an important negative sign for Taiwan if we wouldn't go there anymore, in these times where China is threatening Taiwan.”
Halfway around the world, the war in Ukraine is also a major factor. Russia's invasion is increasing the sense among Western politicians that they need to look out for Taiwan. Germany's foreign minister Annalena Baerbock draws a direct connection between Russia's invasion and the Chinese threat to Taiwan. "This fundamental breach of international law by Russia against Ukraine cannot be tolerated because otherwise it would be an invitation to other countries like China to also invade Taiwan.” "Russia's invasion of Ukraine has been a giant wake-up call to Taiwan.
Not just for political leaders or the military but for ordinary people too. They're confronting the reality — if it can happen there, it could happen here too.” NGOs have been holding training sessions across Taiwan to try to get the public better prepared. "The biggest lesson from Ukraine is that it's a sharp reminder that peace is so fragile. It's a sharp reminder that our world can change overnight.” Here in the city of Taichung, people are learning basic skills they might need in a conflict.
"We're training civilians in crisis response. So that means teaching communities how to do first aid, how to treat severe trauma, how to do search and rescue, how to do emergency communication when our phones don't work, how to manage shelters, essentially, how to keep communities running, how to care after your loved ones and your neighbors. That's what we're after. It helps prepare citizens against crises from man-made - whether manmade or natural.”
People come to spend their Saturday afternoon preparing for something they hope will never happen. "With the Ukraine war, things kind of changed, I think there is a bit more awareness and sensitivity towards how vulnerable our situation can be.” "I think it really helps on creating these scenarios that help us think, ok - we are actually not in a place that is safe and we need to know how to protect ourselves when things happen.”
This reflects Taiwan's growing sense of itself as distinct from China. Surveys show that a large majority of the population now identifies as Taiwanese, rather than Chinese. And only a tiny minority want to 'reunify' with China.
"We elect our own president. We have a constitution. We have a standing army.
We have citizens. We have the right to vote. We know that Taiwan exists.” And economically, Taiwan has become a global force to be reckoned with.
Its semiconductor industry is the most advanced in the world – and critical to global supply chains. The DPP party of president Tsai Ing-wen is known for championing Taiwan's autonomy and pushing back vigorously against Chinese pressure. "The situation around the Taiwan Strait is tense and the threat is increasing day by day. During this period, the troops of the national army at all levels have stepped up their vigilance.”
Tsai announced a big hike in military spending just after the Chinese exercises… And her government says there will be more to come… The US is by far Taiwan's biggest supplier of arms … and there's strong support in Congress to keep the weapons flowing. "I think there is a strong bipartisan consensus in seeing China as the pacing threat — economically, technologically, diplomatically and militarily. So I think that bipartisan consensus is there. And it's very, very important.
And it's certainly there with - in terms of helping build up Taiwan's ability to defend itself.” And this only makes Beijing angrier… saying it breaks with those deals made decades ago. "US administrations have been violating such kind of agreement by increasing arms sales to Taiwan, sending more and more officials to visit Taiwan.
So this is clearly in violation of what they said. If they agree that Taiwan is a part of China, so why would they keep selling more and more arms to Taiwan?” But for all China's anger over the US arming Taiwan, it's the massive growth in Beijing's own military that is the real game changer. "The People's Liberation Army at the moment is undergoing a large-scale reform and modernisation process under the leadership and guidance of President Xi Jinping. Adding more advanced and more capabilities, more modern capabilities to the PLA's inventory in the air, sea, land – and of course also in space and cyber domains.” And that process is pushing ahead on an accelerated timetable. "We probably will become as strong as the United States.
You see officially in mid-century, but probably we can speed up that a bit.” The man pushing all this forward: Xi Jinping, China's supreme leader. He insists that 'reunification' with Taiwan is China's destiny. And he makes no bones about it: he reserves the right to invade. "Resolving the Taiwan issue is a matter for Chinese people themselves, and must be resolved by Chinese people alone. We will strive for the prospect of a peaceful reunification with the greatest sincerity and greatest efforts, but will never commit to abandoning the use of force.”
America's top diplomat Tony Blinken takes this seriously - and says Xi might act sooner rather than later. "There has been a change in the approach from Beijing toward Taiwan in recent years. And instead of sticking with the status quo that was established in a positive way, a fundamental decision that the status quo was no longer acceptable, and that Beijing was determined to pursue reunification on a much faster timeline.” What does this mean for the US position? What would it do if Beijing pulled the trigger? On several occasions now, Joe Biden has said: it would fight. "Are you willing to get involved militarily to defend Taiwan, if it comes to that?” "Yes.
That's the commitment we made.” "Here is the situation. We agreed with the One China policy, we signed on to it, and all the attendant agreements made from there. But the idea that it can be taken by force is just not appropriate.
It will dislocate the entire region, and will be another action similar to what happened in Ukraine." Biden and his team have repeatedly gone on to equivocate over these statements, seeming to walk back from such clarity and return to that position of ambiguity nurtured over decades. But Beijing is drawing its own conclusions. "This is what we believe they are doing: They are hollowing out this concept of one China, because they still talk about it, but the substance is being changed. With more such kinds of visits, with more arms sales to Taiwan, with Joe Biden talking four times about how the United States will defend Taiwan militarily.
The substance, we are afraid, is changing.” "I think if you look at it from both sides, from the Beijing angle and the Washington angle, there is a case to be made that both are simultaneously salami-slicing the traditional notion of the one-China policy. So the Americans, when you start playing around with the question of official level contact between the authorities in Taiwan and those of the US administration – the Chinese would argue that this begins to bit-by-bit salami-slice the whole notion of "one China" becoming "two China." That gets turbocharged by the erosion of the American traditional doctrine of strategic ambiguity into strategic unambiguity, which is where President Biden has left it most recently. Mind you, on the other end, the Americans would say that China has always known that America would be opposed to any threat of the use of force.
And the deployment of military assets after the Pelosi visit came after a series of efforts by China in recent years to ramp up its own military efforts in and around Taiwan anyway. So the Americans would argue that China, too, is salami-slicing one-China policy by beginning to make more and more recourse to military preparations to take the island.” There's a growing sense that we're approaching a moment of truth… So in part 3 of this video we're going to find out – what if anything can prevent war? Bali, Indonesia.
The leaders of the 20 most powerful nations have come to a tropical paradise… to talk about a world in crisis. This is the G20 summit – a group that's meant to coordinate the global economy. But right now it's dominated by the geopolitical struggles engulfing the world. The summit host, Indonesia's president Joko Widodo – sums up the fears of leaders in the region.
"We should not divide the world in two parts. We must not allow the world to fall into another cold war.” That message was aimed directly at the big beasts at the gathering: Joe Biden and Xi Jinping. Here not just for the summit but for a hotly awaited meeting – their first since Biden became president.
The two men put on smiles as they finally came face to face… and with the cameras still running, spoke of the need to get talking again. "Since you assumed the presidency, we have maintained communication via video conferences, phone calls and letters. But none of them can really substitute for face-to-face exchanges.” "As the leaders of our two nations, we share responsibility, in my view, to show that China and the United States can manage our differences, prevent competition from becoming anything ever near conflict.” And if you're wondering just how dysfunctional things have been between the US and China? Consider this, from one of the leading defence experts in Washington – someone close to the administration. "We have none of the risk reduction measures in place that we had even with the Soviet Union at the height of the Cold War.
So there's no hotline where we know someone will pick up at the other end. There are no risk reduction protocols that we can use in a crisis to de-escalate if there's some miscalculation.” A crisis could easily break out. With China's growing assertiveness around Taiwan – and the US presence in the region – the scope for dangerous encounters is very significant. Australia's former prime minister and China specialist Kevin Rudd wants the two sides to make compromises.
"It would mean that the Americans should not move down the road further on the question of salami slicing the one-China policy and the Chinese should establish a much wider margin of geographical separation between their current military activities in eastern Fujian Province and the island of Taiwan itself.” But even if Beijing and Washington can work out some effective boundaries for now, the basic problem hasn't gone anywhere. "Whenever Taiwan is raised with Chinese officials, they – it's a non-negotiable issue.
They it's a what they call a core interest and not something that they're willing to compromise in any way on.” So looking ahead, what does that mean? "Stabilising the relationship for the short to medium term, to reduce the risk of unplanned, accidental crisis, conflict and war in the relationship over Taiwan or other strategic red line issues - that's quite different from the long-term question of China's preparations for the 2030s, which is to have sufficient military and economic and technological power to wage war not by accident but by design, to secure Taiwan.” And when you look at all the players in this – at China, at the US and at Taiwan in the middle – you get a daunting sense of all three set on collision course.
So in this final part of the video, we're going to look at the dynamics at play – and find out – how can they avoid conflict? Let's start with China. Xi Jinping could now be in power for another full decade – or even more. He's declared an historic overall mission: the "rejuvenation” of the Chinese nation. Xi's government set it all down in this paper on Taiwan published just before the big Party Congress. It contains 28 mentions of "national rejuvenation.”
And how do you get national rejuvenation? By reunifying with Taiwan. "Xi Jinping wants to be the guy in political office who finally delivers Taiwan back to Chinese sovereignty.” "We in mainland China believe that Taiwan is part of China and we have to reunify with Taiwan. The only question is through what means: whether they will be peaceful or whether we have to use force.”
"What's changing and therefore making it more dangerous is that China has now begun to perfect the military technologies to execute the mission. China now doubts America's political resolve and military capability to resist.” The military drills we saw in part 2 reinforced this picture. Still, representative Chinese voices insist that they are in no hurry to use force. "It is the last option, because, of course, it is in our own best interest to have peaceful reunification with Taiwan, which I believe one day will be realised.”
"We in mainland China are not actually that impatient to say that we have to have a timetable for reunification. You have never seen any announcements of Chinese government for a timetable of reunification.” And yet – some are questioning whether Taiwan's growing sense of self we saw in part 2 might start to change that calculation. "In the past, we've thought about how Beijing thinks that it has time in its favor and in its advantage – that it can wait for the opportunities or the political developments in Taiwan to change on the ground to suit conditions that it sees as more favorable for peaceful reunification. The trends that are happening in Taiwan at the moment, politically speaking, demographically speaking, don't make that very likely in the near term future.”
And when you ask the Chinese side under what circumstances they would choose force – the response leaves almost anything possible. Let's hear about that from Zhou Bo. He was a high-ranking officer in the PLA, and is now a senior analyst at one of China's top universities.
That means: he's closely connected to those in power. "There are actually three situations in which non-peaceful means would have to be used. One is the declaration of independence by the separatists in Taiwan, which I believe is not quite possible because they won't be so stupid to suddenly declare independence to invite a military response from the mainland.” He's right – this scenario is unlikely. The Taiwanese government has consistently gone out of its way to avoid any official declaration of independence.
"The second is major events that lead to the separation of Taiwan from mainland China. I personally believe this is a some kind of situation, just like the Nancy Pelosi visit to Taiwan that is basically about external interferences.” This scenario is wide open though. As Zhou points out, the Pelosi visit actually happened.
"The third situation is that if the mainland believes that this kind of separation will last forever and all possibilities of peaceful reunification are exhausted.” And this final scenario is equally vague. China could declare it at any time. And permeating the Chinese thinking in these scenarios is the idea that just one thing stands in the way of China's destiny: America. "I think it's really important to remember that the centrality of the Taiwan issue to the Chinese Communist Party is entirely a decision that the Chinese Communist Party leadership has made, right? Why do they prioritize it? I think they prioritize it because they believe that the only reason Taiwan is still not in their grasp is that the US is frustrating their intentions.
So Taiwan becomes a kind of pawn that Beijing is grappling over with the United States.” And you sense increasing confidence in Beijing that it CAN take that pawn. "China is getting stronger. And because China is getting stronger and because China very likely would surpass the United States to become the largest economy by the end of 2030. So this is a heavy blow to America's mentality. We in the mainland are firm about our determination to have reunification one day, and will continue to build our military to be better prepared even for a worst-case scenario.”
And the White House is preparing for the worst-case scenario too. The latest National Security Strategy from the president's team makes clear that it sees China as the number 1 threat to America's standing in the world. It says China has 'both the intent to reshape the international order and, increasingly, the economic, diplomatic, military, and technological power to do it.' The US response to this is incredibly wide-ranging – and specific.
In one move, for example, the Americans pretty much cut China off from their highest-end semiconductor technologies. Not just the chips themselves, but any US-related technology used to make them. This sounds pretty technical, but it's a momentous severing of ties to slow down China's technological development. And the official behind the rule says there's more to come. "We are going to continue to look at not just semiconductors but other areas that the Chinese are using to threaten the United States and its allies.” And specifically on Taiwan – the declared US strategy is also firm.
'We will uphold our commitments under the Taiwan Relations Act to support Taiwan's self-defense and to maintain our capacity to resist any resort to force or coercion against Taiwan.' There's also a growing sense of urgency among leading defence analysts – a fear that the timelines they've been thinking of so far are shrinking fast. "We've been preparing for that, thinking that maybe maybe that's something that - we could see a crisis in the 2030s. And so most of US defense planning is focused on that time period. But what I think we've started to understand is, maybe events could conspire to encourage Xi to act sooner. We have to be prepared to deter China not just in ten, fifteen years, but in five years.”
Allies in Europe are increasingly concerned too. Germany's Chancellor Olaf Scholz – known for his cautious approach to China – used his first visit there as chancellor to publicly urge Beijing to safeguard stability. "Like the US and many other countries, we have a one-China policy. At the same time I made clear that any change in the status quo regarding Taiwan must only happen peacefully and by mutual consent.” And Scholz's deputy said this about the prospect of a fight over Taiwan.
"This will have a disastrous effect on the whole world. We have seen that a regional conflict, like the Russian war on Ukraine has brought the whole world into turbulence. That would be far more catastrophic.
So this is something we definitely have to avoid. And I hope that China knows that the whole world is watching.” And for America's friends in Asia, the prospect of such a war on their doorstep is deeply unnerving. So the US is piling resources into the region, trying to strengthen its position and get its allies up to speed too… The AUKUS alliance to supply Australia with advanced nuclear submarines is a prime example. The overriding goal: deterring China from launching an attack. "Deterrence is the name of the game here.
This is not a war that either side should want to ever fight. I think the key thing is for Beijing to recognize that if you go to war to seize Taiwan, you lose.” But seen from China, all of this is an attempt to obstruct its legitimate rise as a global power. A policy of containment – Cold-war style. "Clearly American intention is to contain China while China is still not number one power in the world. So under this kind of background comes to this question: How useful would Taiwan be for the United States to contain China? So this is my suspicion.
Otherwise, why would the United States strengthen its ties with Taiwan?” And, as we saw earlier, it looks like US support for Taiwan is only going to increase – one of the few things that America's bitterly divided political system can agree on. "Here is one thing you can say that will get both sides of the aisle to support your proposal, and that is: this is against China. So a lot of what we see are US politicians jumping on the bandwagon, which is, I think, really fundamentally an anti-China bandwagon, but they have mistaken the anti-China bandwagon for a pro-Taiwan bandwagon.” From this perspective, American support for Taiwan becomes a paradox. At once essential for its survival…. and yet potentially dragging it into the middle
of a much larger fight. "I think the danger is greater today than it has ever been before, and I think the primary responsibility for that is in the deteriorating relationship between the US and China, in which both sides are perceiving the other as profoundly threatening and perceiving themselves as behaving defensively. So the US and China are in this spiral of threat and counter threat, and counter-counter threat, and Taiwan is caught in the middle.”
And here in Taiwan itself, you can't escape that feeling… especially in a place like Kinmen island, just off the Chinese coast. A place bristling with defences that have been here for decades. "If you think of Taiwan as a potential front line in a conflict between the US and China, well then this really has to be the front line of the front line. Here in Kinmen we look across the bay here to the Chinese city of Xiamen, less than 5 km away across through the haze… This is China's doorstep. It feels very, very close.” And Kinmen has been directly targeted during China's military exercises, with drones probing at guardposts.
In this instance, Taiwanese soldiers were reduced to repelling them with rocks. The incident exposed gaps in Taiwan's defences. "The Chinese are trying to engage in cognitive warfare.
They want to shoot some scenes and to show in their social media to show that the Taiwanese soldiers are incompetent, things like that.” So what CAN Taiwan do in the face of such a gigantic threat? "The buzzword when talking about defending Taiwan is 'asymmetrical warfare.' Based on the idea that the Taiwanese side will always be outnumbered and outspent by China — so how best to deal with that situation.” This is sometimes called a "porcupine strategy” – to make Taiwan as prickly as possible.
"Their job is to buy time in the event of Chinese aggression so that the international community can respond and assist. So it's things like sea mines, anti-ship missiles, air defenses, missile defenses, mobile systems, anything, and actually resistance. I mean, we've seen the power of the population resisting in Ukraine. Well, Taiwan needs to organize itself to be able to mobilize that kind of popular resistance.” This is where people like Enoch Wu come in, training citizens in survival skills.
He has a military background and has close connections to Taiwan's government "Our national survival is Taiwan's biggest challenge of this generation. And so this threat has been around for a long time. What's different is that it's escalating as such a pace. It's important to train in a way that allows our defense to be more resilient and more survivable and more credible. That means being trained to fight and operate in a decentralized manner, in a dispersed manner, so that these are all work that we need to do because the PLA is continuing to invest in its capability and we need to keep up. Enoch Wu unapologetically rejects the formula of 'one China' – while stopping short of China's red line on formal 'independence.'
"There is one China and there's one Taiwan. And I think for all intents and purposes, everyone, the 23 million citizens that live in Taiwan, we understand that we are already independent. The fact that we can vote and decide our own future, chart our own path, means that we're independent.” But others call for a more conciliatory tone towards China.
Eric Chu leads Taiwan's opposition Kuomintang party or KMT – which ruled for most of Taiwan's postwar history but is now in opposition. He draws very different lessons from the Ukraine war. "We strongly encourage our government also to create any channel of dialogue, any channel of positive - or any possibility to avoid the accident or avoid the crisis of war. We don't want to...
We don't want to copy any trouble or any war before. Just like whatever happened you see in Europe, Ukraine. We strongly support the people of Ukraine to defend their country. But I think Taiwan can learn from the Ukraine war. If we can maintain the channel of dialogue between Taiwan and China or Beijing and Washington, I think the risk could be reduced.”
Is there any prospect of some historic new breakthrough on the level of the 1970s? Something to finally solve the issues that Kissinger and Zhou Enlai kicked down the road? "I believe that some creativity needs to be applied to this, both by the PRC, the United States and the Taiwanese to get back to a political track somewhere on some formula for the future which might accommodate both sides' long-term political aspirations. Easy to say, hard to do. It certainly won't be "One China, two systems." One country, two systems - that was the deal China struck when it took Hong Kong back from Britain. China's recent repression there has left the idea with little credibility.
"One China, three systems" – well, that's a possibility. Are there permutations and combinations, combinations of some greater Chinese confederation, which leaves Taiwan effectively untouched in all of its dimensions, internal and external, short of formal nation state status? Perhaps that's the basis upon which we should think about encouraging the Chinese and the Taiwanese, both of whom would hate the formula, by the way, to get around a negotiating table to begin to look at other models.” Sure enough, it's hard to detect interest in such an approach right now. "The policy of this government is to safeguard the status quo. The status quo that the Republic of China, Taiwan and the People's Republic of China have no jurisdiction over each other.
The status quo that Taiwan is already a democracy, the status quo is that the Taiwanese people have a say over Taiwan's future.” And yet Beijing has made it very clear that it does not accept the status quo. "They just keep - wish to maintain the status quo. And then this kind of status quo of separation will last forever. So this is not the good wishes - or the wishes of mainland China.
We wish to become reunified, but we haven't laid down timetable. So that is why we have to make sure to have all options open.” How long can this tension hold? China refusing to accept the way things are. The US determined to stand in its way.
Taiwan clinging on for dear life. All of them know what the stakes would be if it does come to war. Kevin Rudd spelled them out in brutal detail. "A general war involving at least three or four, four or five countries, including the three largest economies in the world, the United States, China and Japan. Secondly, tens, if not hundreds of thousands of Taiwanese civilians dead, because the bottom line is Taiwan would fight. And thirdly, unknown American and Chinese combatants, assuming America became engaged.
And finally, the crashing of the global economy, because you would then be thrown into deep recession and probably depression as there was a seize-up in all forms of international commerce and trade and financial markets involving these three globally dominant economies.” And yet, when he spoke to us in Taipei, Joseph Wu insisted that in the long run, he's optimistic. Although he treads carefully about what might be his greatest hope. "This democracy is going to prevail in the long run. On the contrary, if you look at China's political system, it might look powerful and it might look threatening.
But authoritarian regimes might be profoundly weak. Look at their domestic issues that they have to handle these days. Maybe all of a sudden the Chinese people will say that, no, this is not what we want.
We want something like Taiwan.” "So you're counting on the Chinese Communist Party collapsing and democracy coming to China? Is that your greatest hope?” "No, that's not what I say and I'm not going to predict. But we have faith in Taiwan's democracy. As long as we are democratic. I think we will be doing fine.”
It sounds like trusting in the tides of history. But in the dangerous years ahead, it will be down to everyone to keep the peace.